|Central’s Aaliyah Whiteside drives by Arlington’s Logan Hammonds en route to a game-high 30 points and a 75-56 win that secured the Warriors’ fourth straight trip to state.|
A gym full of first-time excitement ran flush into three years of “been there, done that.”
Now it’s four years as defending state Class AAA girls basketball champion Central, led by Aaliyah Whiteside’s 30 points, earned yet another trip to Murfreesboro, Tenn., by pulling away from host Arlington, 75-56, in Saturday’s sectional round.
Whiteside and fellow seniors Danielle Ballard and Jalen O’Bannon are among a rare group of players that have gone to the state tournament all four years. And they’re not alone, as Region 8 champ Overton earned its fourth straight bid by routing Bartlett, 63-36.
“How does it feel? Normal. This is how we’re supposed to play,” said Ballard, an LSU signee who spent several weeks away from the team with off-court issues. She finished with 10 points while junior Nina Davis added 18 and O’Bannon scored 11 for the Warriors.
“It was tough getting there the first time because we lost three in a row in the regional semis,” Central coach Niki Bray. “But after that … this group has done something.”
The Tigers (27-4), fresh from their first Region 7 title, put on an NBA-worthy shooting show with Central in the first half. Memphis signee Ariel Hearn scored 10 of her 19 points to help Arlington to a 28-26 first-quarter lead, and the Tigers hit their first six 3-point tries.
But no one could stop Whiteside, a Georga Tech signee who has struggled in the postseason, anywhere on the floor — hitting threes, popping from mid-range or driving for putbacks.
“We have to work to keep the game at our pace,” Whiteside said, adding, “we’ve still got work to do.”
Whiteside had 22 by halftime, and the Warriors, after slowing the ball down the last three minutes, hit a last-second layup by Davis for a 41-38 edge. A Whiteside 3-pointer opened an 8-0 run — and opened the Tiger defense for the kind of penetration game that Central (23-7) does best. And after faltering at the foul line in city and regional title game losses to Overton, Central ended by hitting 9 of 10 free throws, four each by O’Bannon and Ballard.
“More than anything, we slowed it down trying to keep from getting a lot of players hit with that third foul,” Bray said. “But we were able to pick up the pace again, and finally hit our free throws at the end.”
Senior Christyn Hopper added 15 points, 11 in the first half, and senior Logan Hammonds added 10 in their final game at Arlington.
“We got the scenario we wanted, and while I didn’t want to get in a track meet with them, I liked the way we were playing,” Arlington coach David Offerle said. “But we couldn’t keep up our shooting pace, and their length took over on both ends of the floor. Central showed its experience, and talent.”